Essays

Rome, Paris, Home

Laura and I in Spain, 1985

The author and her little sister, Madrid, 1985

The other day I was rummaging through the junk in my attic and stumbled upon the diary I kept when I was twenty-one. My little sister and I were traveling through Europe on our way to visit our father, who lived in the Yemen Arab Republic.

In Spain we met a young Lebanese man who, once he found out I’d studied in Spain, lived by the Plaza del Toros, and frequented the bullfights, insisted we take him out for Spanish tortilla and la corrida del toros. This man, I complained, wouldn’t let us pay for anything! The chauvinism! I wrote, “The bulls were peor, every one of them, but a matador was gored in the inner thigh, and horse was lifted off its hooves and dropped his intestines in the sawdust.”

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Bull, picador, and horse–the picador actually delivers the mortal wound. When the matador arrives, the bull is bleeding to death.

Boring young men kept attaching themselves to us pretty blond American girls, and we arrived in Europe already tired of pestering and pressure. I read on, anticipating a particular tale. Finally I got to the part where we met the thirty-six-year-old man from California at an outdoor cafe in Rome (I’d thought he was fifty). He (Team Atheist)  argued religion with me (Team Catholic) over dinner. Just as I was reading and began to feel sorry for my little sister, who must’ve been so bored, and I assumed my young self never gave her a thought, I read, “My poor sister sat beside me silently the entire tedious time!” It took hours for me to “finally back him against the wall with his own flawed argument, and the waiter flicked the lights.” I read my own proud and breathless words, “He said he enjoyed my argument and walked us home. I’ll never know how I survive,” and I shut the diary.

The thirty-six-year-old Californian (let’s call him Bruno) was traveling with the substitute drummer from a famous rock band. The drummer was younger and cuter than Bruno, but took a shine to my baby sister, and I got protective, until I noticed he treated her like a child, which, at sixteen, she was. Two men had come to some kind of agreement: Bruno would charm me into sleeping with him, while his friend (let’s call him Kenny (because his name was Kenny)) kept my sister safely occupied. In this manner, the four of us toured Rome for a couple of days.

Bruno had bought a Mercedes in Germany just for their summer-long road trip through Europe. I was careful not to be impressed. He invited me to stay another week and travel with them. “I meet a lot of beautiful women, but none as smart and funny as you,” or so he said. “You’re a rare find. I ought to know.”

“And I ought to know better than to fall for the come-ons of a self-described ‘aging rock star.'” Unable to score women his own age, I thought, he had to prey on the naive ones. Why wouldn’t women his age date him? What did they see that I missed?

Like Kenny, Bruno was a musician. He had his own recording studio, but he’d made his money renovating and flipping houses in the San Francisco Bay area. His sister was an actress who played the mom in a popular sitcom I didn’t watch. I was not impressed by a man who spent months touring Europe at thirty-six, even if he was related to a famous television mom. His life sounded idle, vain, and childish. Having earned all the time and money a man could want, he thought he had the right to sex with any woman a man could want, which meant I’d never believe a word he said.

But he was sexy, rowdy, and funny. If you snapped him into Spandex pants, he could’ve passed for David Lee Roth, the only rock star I might’ve had a crush on–if I were the type of woman who had crushes on rock stars.

Michelangelo's Pieta', Saint Peter's Basilica

Michelangelo’s Pieta’, Saint Peter’s Basilica

As I paged through the diary, a photo of Bruno fell out. He’d sent it to me later that fall. For some reason, I’d kept it all those years, but I didn’t need a photo to remember how snug his tee shirt was and how trim he looked with it tucked in, his tousled hair already thinning at the temples. I didn’t need the diary to recount the speech he’d made outside the Vatican. “Why worship God when you can worship me?” Trim, muscular, and lively, he jumped and twirled and waved his arms, chanting voodoo nonsense. “There. I sainted myself. Come, milady, to the Church of Bruno!” He bowed to me. “We’re more fun than these Catholic blowhards. Look at this obscene wealth!” He spread his arms before the Vatican. “Wait’ll we go inside, you’ll see what a monument to hypocrisy it is. But when you convert to Brunoism, life is simple. Brunoists practice Mass on the beach. And when a follower dies, we bury him in the sand, ass up. We put a little plastic bucket over his ass, to cover it, out of respect.”

Inside, I argued the Vatican wasn’t a monument to wealth, power, and vanity, but a testament to the sacrifices wealthy people made for their faith.

He snorted. “Yeah, there are lots of ways to talk a man out of his money.”

That night in bed beside my sister, I wrote, “I think he’s lovely. But I’m not infatuated. Infatuation is a luxury a good Catholic can’t afford.” Even traveling, I never missed Sunday Mass. I insisted he take me to see Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Saint Peter's Square

The sky over Saint Peter’s Square

As we approached the entrance, a guard stopped us. Bruno could pass, but not me. I was a woman, and my arms were bare. In the wide, empty square my sinful skin burned in the bright sun while Bruno laughed. I, a prudish little Catholic, was too naked for the Basilica. I didn’t write this in my diary, but I remember standing exiled under the Roman sun, my cheeks hot with embarrassment, hoping I really was as pretty as the models Bruno dated. I also wondered if I was damned.

We stayed up late the last night, drinking wine and arguing about my chastity–all very theological, of course. He made me feel witty and smart and safe. He gave me his mailing address and phone number, we said good-bye, and planned to meet in Paris in two weeks.

The next morning when my sister and I rose to catch our flight to Yemen, I couldn’t find our passports. I’d thought they were with the concierge. I emptied our suitcases and felt in every pocket. I opened drawers and crawled on the floor. We missed our flight.

Kenny and Bruno bumped into us at the front desk where I stifled angry tears. I had to call my father. Bruno and Kenny waited with us while my father, from the Yemen Arab Republic, had new diplomatic passports expedited. He called back to say it didn’t matter how fast he could get them to me–it was Ramadan. All flights to Yemen were booked for a week. We were trapped in Rome, and I hadn’t budgeted enough waitressing money for an extra week.

“You keep talking to some fellow in the background,” my father said. “Put him on.”

I handed the phone to Bruno, prepared for my father to think me a lying hussy screwing her way through Italy on his dime.

Bruno took the phone. “Hey, Bob, how the hell’s your day going?” Without consulting with me, Bruno and my father decided Bruno would look after us and pay for our food and lodging. Later, my father would reimburse him. When Bruno returned the phone, my father seemed surprisingly pleased to have handed his daughters over to two strange men.

“Good move with the passports,” Bruno winked. “C’mon, ladies, get in.” And off we went, up the coast of Italy in a brand new Mercedes, guests of the rock stars.

We took the E80 and our time. We stopped in little seaside towns like Ladispoli, Santa Marinella, Civitavecchia, and Ortobello, and finally settled in a remote town on a tiny doodle of land jutting into the Tyrrhenian Sea, Talamone.

Talamone

Talamone

My chastity held in the Hotel Telamonio, on a bluff overlooking the sea. The four of us strolled and talked and swam and ate and drank, and over  the lazy days and long, discursive, wine-soaked evenings, I confided my life to Bruno. It was easy. It was interesting. And every difficult thing I said to this godforsaken man only confirmed for him that he had found his favorite person in the world–me. That I found hard to resist.

One afternoon Kenny took my sister back to Ortobello for souvenir shopping. Bruno and I walked the stone streets and the windy bluffs. “Life is bigger than your faith,” he said, and it was as if something between us had been decided. He took me by the shoulders and faced me to the sea. He put his arms around my shoulders and kissed the back of my head. “I can see you’ve needed faith, but it’s going to let the likes of you down. You’ve got much bigger things ahead.” He spoke into my windblown hair. “Come live with me. You’ll be near your family. You’ll meet the best people. I’ve got a huge house–you can have your own room. You’ll love it. I’ve got dogs and parrots. I’ll send you to Berkeley for your graduate degree.”

Out past the breakers was a small, flat rock just high enough to be dry, just low enough to climb upon. I turned and let him kiss me, finally, long and hard.

If it sounded too good to be true, I wasn’t falling for it. I pulled out of his grasp, ran along the low stone wall that separated us from the long spill to the rocks below, and trotted down the stone staircase to the beach. I called over my shoulder, “What could the two of us possibly have in common when you’re fifteen years older?”

“There are types of people,” he shouted. “Maybe just ten types. There are more of some and fewer of others, and you and I are rare.” He threw out his arm to stop me at a switchback. “Lisa, it gets lonely.”

I ran on, and when my feet hit the sand at the bottom, I stopped.

“You want to know what difference fifteen years makes?” He came up behind me and hugged me. “I just have more junk in my attic.”

I returned his embrace, the years between us reduced to so much junk. We surveyed the narrow, boulder-tumbled beach. We had it all to ourselves. Waves hissed through the rocks and seaweed. He said, “So, you have a plan? Where are we going?”

“That rock.” I pointed across the water. I took off my shirt. I was thinking, if I’m doing this, I’m doing it big. I wanted to remember it.

I swam nude to the rock, mostly underwater, the water colder than I expected, the rock farther, but I was strong and fast and way out ahead of him. The rock was hot and sharp in places. I had to keep looking over his shoulder to check the cliff for voyeurs, which spoiled it for me. My only satisfaction was having made a big statement, one I myself didn’t understand, but he was pleased with the stunt, and I was as pleased with myself as the damned could be.

A day or two later, the passports turned up in a zippered pocket of my suitcase, as if they’d been there all along. Had I been frazzled, dazzled, and incompetent enough to miss them? Had they been swiped and replaced? By whom and why? The easiest and most obvious thing was to assume it was my young fault and my female shame.

After visiting our father in Yemen, my sister and I traveled to Paris, where she met up with her high school boyfriend and went on to meet his family in Brussels. I met Bruno as planned. He had bad news. “Remember the crazy ex I was telling you about? She’s here.” He had dumped her right before he left for Europe, dumped her hard. It turned out that after he left, she discovered she was pregnant. She couldn’t get in touch with him and so, because he had dumped her, she had an abortion. The thing was, years before, doctors told her she’d never have children.  She believed the baby had been her only chance at motherhood, her miracle, and she had panicked and killed it. When she finally got ahold of Bruno, it was to give him her arrival time at Charles de Gaulle Airport. “What can I do?” he pleaded. “She’s a basket case.”

“This story sure isn’t talking me out of Catholicism,” I said. Somebody was bullshitting somebody. This was why you shouldn’t sleep with a man who didn’t love you enough to wait for marriage.

I spent my days and nights wandering Paris alone, which had been my original plan. A few boring young men, mostly Italians and Parisians, attached themselves to me, and we had fun flirting and sightseeing and eating and walking and talking. Some sheepish, some bold, they’d invite me to sleep with them; I’d turn them down. Sometimes I talked about my ex-boyfriend back home who’d broken my heart. Less often, I talked about Bruno, who’d darkened it. Every afternoon, while the sad and crazy ex-girlfriend napped, Bruno came to my hotel. Our trysts reassured him greatly. He talked fast, heaved and sweat like a bull, stroked my face, apologized, and made promises I didn’t ask for. Then he dressed quickly and left. I’d drag myself from my bed heavy and hollow, certain I’d never be loved.

Months later, reunited with my unfaithful ex-boyfriend and my church, I enrolled in a graduate program at Penn State. One afternoon my phone rang. “Thank God!” said a man whose voice I didn’t recognize. “Bruno’s still in Europe. He’s having trouble shipping the car, but anyway, he lost his address book. He’s been beside himself. He’s had me calling every graduate English program in Pennsylvania.” This, allegedly, was Bruno’s father. “I’ve never seen my son like this. He’s never been so in love.” I gave the triumphant stranger on the phone my address, and when Bruno got back to the States, he renewed his courtship by letter and phone, urging me to leave Penn State right in the middle of the semester, split with the unfaithful boyfriend, and repudiate the Catholic faith. That’s how I got the photograph–one he posed for, carefully, with me in mind. At thirty-six, he was still a beautiful boy. Kneeling in my attic with the photo, I laughed at how little he knew me–I hoped his ex-girlfriend had more babies. I hoped they weren’t his.

I turned the page of the diary, found and unfolded his letters, and read how he fought to defend himself as a good and honest man, an honorable lover, faithful and true, and I, inexorable, could not believe him, especially not after Paris. A few pages later it came clear to us I was too stubborn, stupid, and distrustful to run off to San Francisco with an impetuous aging rock star who had hundreds of pretty women screaming at his feet. As soon as he had me, I feared, he’d have someone else.

His wounded last words haunt me. “Don’t call me, years from now, because you’re married and you’re bored.”

I hung up, stunned. I swore I’d never call him again.

Years later I was married, pregnant, and not quite yet bored. I’d married a Catholic who’d held out a year for our wedding night, which I’d thought meant he’d never betray me. Now I had a baby growing in my body. All I could think about was eating and sleeping and learning and doing what was best for my baby. So I had to phone Bruno. It took me days to find the nerve.

“A husband. A baby. Good for you.” His voice clenched, and I knew he was single still, afraid he’d never be loved, a matador gored in the thigh, a horse with his guts in the dust. “What do you want?”

“I saw you on television.” I’d turned on a home improvement show, and suddenly there he was, in his studio, singing and playing keyboard, solo, my Bruno, my lover. There was his famous sister too. Everything he’d said was true after all. But it didn’t matter, never would have mattered, so in movements thousands of years old, I drew the blade and waved the cape, the bull having already received his mortal wound by other hands. “You were wearing skin-tight black leather pants, a black leather vest, wrist bands, and not much else, like The Village People.”

“So?”

It was 1989. He was in San Francisco. I had to ask. “Do I need an AIDS test?”

This essay is a draft for a collection-in-progress called The Naked Australian and Other First Dates. Read more about it here.

To hitch a ride on more Road Trips with the Sirens, go to http://thegloriasirens.com/category/road-trips/)

5 replies »

  1. nice tension , good brief descritions and cxant wait for a litle more on who this desperadoe rocky star is Van Halen > hmm